Duane Coombs exhibited the optimism that every Western rancher and farmer needs to have about the overwhelming challenges they face in the life they love.
Those include drought, fires, floods, disease, poor markets, predators and just bad luck. But most of the ranchers I’ve known have the view that Coombs has: Things are always going to get better next year.
Coombs, who manages the Smith Creek Ranch near Austin, Nev., spoke Tuesday at a news conference in Denver in favor of the massive collaborative conservation plan unveiled this week to protect sage grouse across 173 million acres and 11 states. He told an audience that included four Western governors from both political parties and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that his 11-year-old daughter Desatoya (Desi for short) has helped him to overcome his own distrust of government while working on the ranch to save the bird his family loves.
“In this little girl’s life, government is her partner,” Coombs said.
Named for a mountain range near the ranch, Desi has watched her father put white streamers on his barbed wire — she calls them “chicken flappers” — to keep the grouse from flying into the fences. One of her best friends is U.S. Geological Survey biologist Katelyn Andrle.
If the American West can take Coombs’ approach to restoring the sage grouse and saving the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, then perhaps it remains “Next Year Country.” But it’s a daunting task.
Energy companies are considering lawsuits because they think the 98 federal land plan amendments that include sage grouse conservation measures are too tough. Environmental groups such as Western Watersheds Project, Advocates for the West and the Center for Biodiversity think the plans don’t go far enough to turn the bird from the path to extinction.
At the heart of both sides’ reservations is the incredible distrust that has evolved over the past 40 years of public lands governance. Each side has valid reasons for their views, but taking that leap of faith that created this “all lands” conservation plan requires challenging their own status quo.
“There are some (for whom) it’s a lot easier to fight than to work together,” said Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s Republican governor.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the words of House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, who pooh-poohed the process from the beginning.
“Do not be fooled,” said Bishop in a statement Tuesday. “The announcement not to list the sage grouse is a cynical ploy. ... The new command-and-control federal plan will not help the bird, but it will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama administration.”
He’s talking about trying to get Congress to scrap the plans, or perhaps preventing the agencies from spending money on the conservation measures in them. Talk about cynical.
What he and Congress should be doing is ensuring that the agencies have the money to carry out these plans and to meet the firefighting and rehabilitation needs Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Jewell have brought forward. They also need to fund the updates to grazing plans; otherwise environmental lawyers will argue in federal court that there’s not enough money to ensure that the plans will keep the bird from needing the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Many environmental groups did support the collaborative plan, such as the Idaho Conservation League and its public lands director, John Robison. He worked with ranchers, industry and others on Otter’s sage grouse task force, whose work laid much of the foundation for the federal plans in this region.
Robison said the plan isn’t perfect, just as Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness is imperfect. But the plans represent cumulative conservation efforts, including contributions from people such as Coombs, that are the best hope the bird has.
I covered the spotted owl controversy in the 1980s and early 1990s, which ended as a lose-lose because so much ancient forest had been cut there were few choices left but to list the owl. I have covered the salmon controversy since the early 1990s, as two competing views of science and the law keep the sides locked in court.
But in the sage grouse plan, all but a small minority agree on the main points of conservation: We need to stop wildfires and cheatgrass. We need to protect most of the remaining high-quality habitat. We need conservation across land ownerships. And we need to find a way, over time, to restore the habitat the birds need. It’s a matter of how much and where.
Most of all we need to restore trust in each other and reach across the great divide, as Coombs did for his daughter. He talked with her on his way out the door to the Denver announcement this week, as she asked whether it was yet another sage grouse meeting.
“Dad, are we going to save the world this time?” Coombs said she asked.
I hope so, Desi.